This year’s fifth annual Commercial UAV Expo Americas exceeded all prior years’ records and was a resounding success by any metric. With 202 exhibitors and more than 3,100 professionals in the commercial drone industry, the event highlighted how the technology is making a difference in specific vertical industries like construction and public safety, but also laid the groundwork for an urban air mobility (UAM) ecosystem that could be in place by the end of the decade

This success would not have been possible had Lisa Murray, Director of Commercial UAV Expo Americas and Commercial UAV Expo Europe, not seen a need for a small UAS expo and developed that vision into the event that it is today. The focus on key issues faced by large-enterprise organizations when implementing a drone program goes back to the very first edition of the expo, but an expansion to Europe and an exploration of topics like counter-drone technology highlight the ways that the event continues to evolve and why it has become the largest commercial drone event in the market. 

Commercial UAV News sat down with Murray to discuss how that idea became a reality, what’s in store for the future of Commercial UAV Expo Americas and Commercial UAV Expo Europe and much more.

Danielle Gagne: Take us back to 2013 or 2014 when you saw drone technology begin to generate all of those headlines and reports. When did you realize that you might need to create an entire event to specifically showcase this technology?

Lisa Murray: It actually came directly from some of our customers that had been supporting events like SPAR 3D and the International Lidar Mapping Forum (ILMF). Some of the contacts from companies that were exhibiting at those shows literally came up to us and said, ‘this is going to be really big and disruptive, and probably merits its’ own small UAS conference.’ The surveying and mapping industries were clearly starting to embrace the use of drones, but we did our due diligence around the market potential as well.

As you mentioned, there were a lot of studies on the potential of the drone market at the time and it was clear that it was being pushed to the forefront. Everyone in the tech market was buzzing about drones. The FAA was set to ease operation restrictions that existed under Section 333 and drone technology had progressed to a point where it was going to start being an influencer on how people were doing their jobs. All of that allowed us to develop a vision of what a conference program would look like in terms of what kinds of educational needs people had in the market. At that point, we know we had something and that warranted an event of its own.   

The launch of Commercial UAV Expo in 2015 also saw the launch of two other events specifically dedicated to this technology. Were you more excited or concerned to see this kind of interest and support?

Both, because it was validation that the small UAS market was something that could handle that kind of focus. It was exciting to realize that so many people wanted a place to learn about and discover this technology, but it was also concerning to be launching at the same time with two other competitive events. In my 25 years of being in the event business, I have never seen three competitive events launch within a month of one another. 

And they were all viable. Drone World Expo drew from the Silicon Valley crowd, but Interdrone and Commercial UAV Expo were held in the same city. It proves how high the interest in drone technology was at the time. Things have shifted for those events over the past few years, but we have always focused on precision measurement in the use of small UAS in industrial applications in a way that the others were not. That focus on the professional applications of the technology remains a key differentiator for us. 

You mentioned how things have shifted for these events, and one of the biggest ones had to be the acquisition of Drone World Expo by Diversified Communications that you helped drive. How do you think that changed the landscape of drone events?

That was in 2017, and by then, I think the industry was tired of having to go to so many events, but many were having trouble figuring out which show would be the best fit for them. The distinctions between events had been blurred, which made it difficult for people to decipher what the differences really were. We bought Drone World Expo in an effort to create the premier platform for all of small UAS technology and to take a potentially confusing choice off the table.

It was extremely well received in the market because it made things easier for people to understand and we gained a lot of credibility and support for it. That combination allowed us to grow faster and take the event to the next level.  

That next level included the launch of Commercial UAV Expo Europe, which also happened in 2017. What did that mean for attendees of both, and what did it say about the worldwide drone market?

One of the things we’ve always focused quite heavily on is putting buyers and sellers together. In the European market, those buyers are predominately from Europe, although they do come from many different countries as well. And the buyers from the US show are primarily from North America, but it also draws people from other countries as well. What our two shows do is essentially take the solutions providers and put them in the places where most of their buyers are going to be within those two geographic markets. 

The launch of Commercial UAV Expo Europe was also an indication of how far and quickly things have progressed for a worldwide drone market. The drone industry started out with a really cool technology that could do things that people weren’t used to seeing done at a lower price point, and it was being done safer, cheaper, and quicker with better quality data. This has evolved over the last few years. I think Silicon Valley and the drone technology coming out of Europe has started to figure out where it is going to land.

The market is maturing, just like our events are, so they’re certainly tied together. The people who are involved now are here to stay. They’re the ones who are key stakeholders either on the user side or solution provider side. I would say the quality and quantity are shaking out.

How much of that maturation do you think enabled the fifth edition of Commercial UAV Americas to set record-breaking numbers for exhibitors and attendees? 

We really put a lot of effort into developing our audience this year and grew attendance 30%. That just doesn’t happen often in the events industry. We have the largest exhibit floor of small UAS solutions for any commercial drone show in the market. It became very attractive to people when they started comparison shopping—this was where you wanted to be to see the most systems in play. 

Our outdoor demonstrations are also a key differentiator for us. People want to see systems in action. So, we take them out into the desert, and they get to see a number of different solutions and data sets in flight. We also work really hard on expanding the international reach of our attendees. We had a record number of internationals attending this year because this is a global business.

The success in 2019 was also driven by a recognition that the hype around drones is gone, but that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. People really are using this technology to make a difference and that’s what we wanted to highlight. This approach was in contrast to a lot of the doom and gloom that I was hearing at some other events. We focused instead on emphasizing that positive outlook, and it seems to have worked.

Because this industry is so new, there have been a lot of changes and redirects over the years. What has been your strategy to stay on top of these changes in order to bring value to attendees and exhibitors?

We have a very close relationship with our customers both on the editorial side and on the sales side. Additionally, we rely on a very high-level advisory board of people who are involved in all aspects of the industry. They are pioneering users and a lot of them are involved in things like the FAA’s IPP program. We also have over 285 partners consisting of media outlets and industry associations. It is very challenging to stay on top of what’s happening in drones in all the different verticals in all the different places. It’s like having an army of people out there who we are in touch with on a regular, ongoing basis.

On top of that, we’re one of the only shows that also have a weekly newsletter and dedicated digital platform with Commercial UAV News. That’s important because this industry changes on a daily, even hourly, basis. You can’t have an event just once a year, you’ve got to be on top of the market all the time. Having an outlet that goes out weekly to 18,000 plus people all over the world is a way to stay on top of what’s going on. Our goal is to increase drone adoption and comfort with drone technology, so we try to be as informative as possible both in-person and online so that professionals come to rely on the news we deliver, no matter the format.  

All of this helps us keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the industry. From our editors to our customers, partners, and our advisory board, everybody helps us stay plugged in so that we can provide the most relevant content to put in our programs and in our news.

What have been some of your favorite speakers or sessions?

There have been a lot of great speakers over the years. Some of our audience favorites have been Robbie Hood from NOAA talking about drone integration, Mark Bathrick from the Department of the Interior talking about starting their drone program, and most recently Jim Bridenstine the administrator for NASA talking about the future of the airspace. Hearing what Uber Elevate had to say about how close we are with UAM was both shocking and exciting to me.

Sometimes the most inspiring stories are not even keynotes, but things that are still in development at universities. We have a Drone Hero contest over in Europe that includes a lot of the top technical universities who put forth their best projects. There was this one particular guy who had grown up in Afghanistan. He had friends who would step on IEDs so he developed a drone that would detect the unexploded IED underground, detonate it, and then fly out of the way so it wouldn’t get destroyed. This saved people from being maimed or even potentially losing their lives, which was very inspirational. He won the contest that year.

For people who have gone to Commercial UAV Expo Europe in the past, what changes/enhancements should they expect to see with the co-location with Amsterdam Drone Week?

The key benefit is around bringing the entire drone ecosystem together. Commercial UAV Expo focuses on what’s possible right now, and how to utilize small drones, and UAM is a focus on what’s going to happen in the future. UTM is the link between the two, and that’s why it has a foot in both camps.

This show is also going to provide exclusive high-level content at the EASA conference, as it will include all the major players in UAM including the heads of smart cities in Europe and delegates from the European Commission. It will also feature solutions providers who are involved in building the system of UTM with air navigation service providers (ANSPs), telecom, smart city, and infrastructure people. Our focus is still on small UAVs, the RAI’s specialty is UAM, and with the EASA holding its regulatory conference, you end up with an incredible combination.

From an exhibitor perspective, you can anticipate the same high-level buyer at the North America show as in Europe. Rather than wait for buyers to come to us, we go out and cultivate relationships with those buyers and show them the content and value of our shows, and we bring them to the event. From an attendee perspective, we are not only looking at it for one particular market, but we have a global view, which provides access to the global drone market.

We are also planning on striking that balance in the US as well. Amsterdam Drone Week is going to be launching their UAM summit in 2020 alongside Commercial UAV Expo Americas.

Speaking of that synergy across events and continents, how are you planning to deliver value for attendees and exhibitors at both the Americas and Europe in 2020?

We are going to leverage connections between our European and US show and make them more international. We’re also going to elevate the conversation to the key players who are dominating the market and are focusing on best-in-class solutions, and we’ll continue to grow that attendee audience of power users from large enterprises. We are constantly making sure the content is not on repeat and that it is relevant and topical.

The market has changed, and we have changed with it. The drone industry has become less crowded and we’re at a point where the ones that are here are here to stay. We’re here to stay too.